Hello! My name is Michael Helgeson, and it is my esteemed pleasure to provide you with this minor introduction to Hirosaki University, the city as a whole, as well as some of my impressions and observations, humble though they may be. Please take it for what it is: subjective but sincere, biased but honest, and written for your entertainment as well as your education. Should you have the opportunity to come to this crazy and amazing country, I‟m sure you‟ll create a glorious plethora of your own opinions and impressions, both positive and negative…but these are mine! Let‟s Reading!
General Information For the sake of easy skimming and as an offering to the organizational Gods (of which there are many in Japan), I will be breaking things down into bite-sized categories. This is the first. Hirosaki University, as the name implies, resides in the city of Hirosaki. It is located in Aomori Prefecture, the northernmost prefecture within Tohoku, the major island of Japan. While it is not the capital city (which is also called Aomori, just one hour north by train) Hirosaki is arguably the most thriving city of the region. Historically, it was the educational and military leader of northern Tohoku. While the post WWII elimination of any major military in Japan robbed it of one title, it continues to retain its educational prowess, with Hirosaki University being the most respected in the prefecture.
Concerning climate, Hirosaki experiences all four seasons, with an emphasis on winter. I received a very white and slushy welcome upon arriving in late March. While the winters are cold and snow-filled, the area is surrounded by mountains, which provide a great opportunity for any aspiring snow-sport athletes. Spring and Autumn are beautiful and the weather is great. The highlight of the Spring season is without question the Sakura Matsuri, which is the blossoming of the fabled Sakura trees. They are only in bloom for one week, and during that week, you can expect Hirosaki to draw somewhere around one million tourists. Hirosaki is the foremost Sakura-viewing city in the nation. Summers, as summers so often are, tend to be hot, humid, and unpleasant for a couple months. But believe me, they‟re nothing compared to the hellish misery of Western Tennessee summers… to omoimasu…
School Life Academics On to the juicy stuff! Let‟s begin with the classes you will very likely be taking. Upon arriving at the university you, along with every other international student taking Japanese language courses, will take a long and arduous placement exam. Don‟t sweat it! You‟ll do as well as you‟re supposed to for your level, and the results dictate what level course work you‟ll be enrolled in. Unless you‟ve done a significant amount of additional self-study, expect to start at the bottom, just like I did! It‟s fun down there; no pressure, and an opportunity to cement your basics. In Japanese 110, you very likely covered Hiragana, and four chapters in the textbook. In your first semester at Hirosaki, you will cover Hiragana, Katakana, approx. 100 Kanji, and 25 textbook chapters. I repeat! 25 textbook chapters! It‟s great fun! In case you‟re interested, your textbook series for the first and second semester will be “Minna no Nihongo”. Check it out online. The class size varies by the level of that semesters‟ incoming students, but you should probably expect somewhere between 8 and 12 students in your class. Your teacher will NOT speak English (very well), and even if they are able to, they will decidedly refrain from doing so, thus forcing you to adapt to the necessity of communicating in Japanese. It might be a bit frustrating at first, but you‟ll adapt nicely, and be stronger/better for it! In addition to your Japanese coursework, you also have the option of attending a variety of classes given by the International Exchange department. These classes serve to introduce you the student to any of a variety of Japanese topics. Areas of study include local economy and tourism, local history and culture, traditional sports, literature, politics, astrophysics, and the like. There‟s a pretty good variety, and while each class isn‟t offered every semester, I‟m sure you can find something that will interest you. Student Life The easiest people to make friends with, especially at the beginning, will be the other happily misplaced international students. They come from such famed countries as: America, Canada, France, Brazil, Romania, Germany, South Korea (sorry, none from North Korea just yet), China, Taiwan, Thailand, New Zealand, Honduras, and a few others I‟m failing to mention, I‟m sure. Generally speaking, they are a great crowd of adventurous people looking to experience something outside the norm that their country has to offer them (just like you). The intensity of living in a foreign country seems to have the effect of creating strong friendships in short periods of time, and I‟m confident that you will be no exception. I certainly wasn‟t. If you are coming here on your own steam (that is to say, without a scholarship) you will in all likelihood be staying in the International Student Dormitory, which only puts you that much closer to a whole bunch of potential friends. Be sociable! Make a fool of yourself! Or just be yourself…in my case the two coexist all-to-conveniently. Learn some Chinese and Korean on the side from your congenial, non-English speaking neighbors! It‟ll be great. Let‟s move on.
After a few weeks, when you‟re knee-deep in Japanese language-learning ambition, you may find yourself exuding a common lamentation! It goes like this, “All of my friends speak English! I want to be hanging out with more Japanese people so I can practice my Japanese!” etc. Excellent! There is a simple, and I daresay essential solution to this problem, and that is… join a student club. Perhaps that should be capitalized for emphasis? Student Clubs are THE source of student life, student activity, and studentbased fun, both on and off campus. Join one! Join four! They have clubs for everything. Martial arts (a variety), billiards, rugby, American football, tennis, soccer, art, photography, bands (lots of these, too), singing, dancing, mountain climbing, adventuring, gymnastics, drinking… oh wait… that was billiards… ahem… pretty much every sport under the sun, and believe me, I‟m only naming the tip of the iceberg. If you‟re looking for serious and disciplined, the martial arts clubs deliver nicely, as well as some of the sports clubs. If you‟re basically just looking to have an excuse to meet and hang out with a bunch of people, or maybe have a fun crowd to go drinking with on the weekends, there are a bunch of intramural-type clubs that exist along those lines. It‟s totally up to you. Join a club! You won‟t regret it. (As for me, I joined, in chronological order, Rugby, Mountain Climbing, Shorinji Kenpo, Billiards, and Soccer. Variety is the spice of life! I quit the first three…no hard feelings.)
A bunch of my Shorinji Kenpo Club members at the Student Festival
The students really seem to own the campus here. Almost every day, excluding winter, you‟ll find one of the many Rock House club‟s bands performing during the lunch break. English songs are popular, so if you‟re ambitious and don‟t embarrass easy, maybe you can sing your way behind the mic? It‟s pretty cool. They also have small indoor concerts semi-regularly, and they‟re usually free, or extremely cheap. The dance clubs give some
great performances, too. Also, towards the beginning of the Fall Semester, there is a Student Festival that lasts three or four days. There are no classes, and the entire campus becomes something of a carnival. Every club sets up it‟s own booth, and the students scream and shout their wares (typically edible and delicious) to passerby‟s. It‟s a really cool festival, and a huge number of people from the city, families and the like, come over for the festivities. I had the pleasure of getting beaten in an arm wrestling competition, on stage, by my Egyptian friend Abu. I got some high-quality instant ramen, a bag of chocolate, and a tasty coffee drink for my efforts. I went home happy.
Two guys from my Billiards club during the Student Festival
Non-School Life Nightlife Let‟s begin with the Nightlife. I believe that this section should be prefaced by a small but important cultural note concerning alcohol. In Japan, there is absolutely no negative cultural, social, or religious taboo connected to alcohol in general. They sell beer at the convenience store on campus. It‟s not uncommon at all for professors to go out drinking with their students, or even to host parties themselves, and invite students and other professors along for the festivities. I have attended many such events. Of course, running naked and wasted down the snow-covered streets is frowned upon, as are all violent or crazy expressions of drunkenness. But such occurrences are extremely rare, and really bare no relation to my point. So… That being said, let‟s continue with a little information on the nightlife venue of Hirosaki.
Generally speaking, there are two very popular forms of nightlife for the student crowd: Izakaya, and Karaoke parlors. In a typical outing, the prior leads to the latter. Izakaya, simply put, are any alcohol-serving institutions; essentially, Japanese bars. However, they almost always double as restaurants, and they differ greatly from the Western bars you are most likely familiar with. An Izakaya is not a place you go to meet strangers, or members of the interested sex. Rather, it is a place you go to with your friends to eat, drink, and enjoy yourselves. There are countless Izakaya throughout Hirosaki. In the student district, known as Nishi-Hiro (Western Hirosaki), there are some 20 to 30 venues to choose from. They are all unique, and plush with cool, comfortable Japanese atmosphere. Some will find you sitting on Tatami, others on normal chairs, and still others in booths. Some boast local Shamisen musicians. Some specialize in a particular kind of Japanese Cuisine. Some are boisterous and lively, while others are quiet and relaxed. However, if you really miss the feel of the traditional Western bar, a handful of those can be found, as well.
A popular Izakaya on Halloween
Karaoke parlors are extremely popular in Japan. In fact, rumor has it that Karaoke originated from Japan, and is actually a Japanese word. Feel free to investigate. Karaoke parlors are very often frequented by parties having just vacated an Izakaya. They are open very late, sometimes all night, and are composed entirely of private rooms. Karaoke is great fun in Japan, so long as you can embarrass yourself a bit! And if you haven‟t learned to embarrass yourself by this point in life my friend, well, this is your shining chance. It is a life skill that doesn‟t receive nearly enough emphasis in the land of academia. And in Japan, everyone loves a fool. No joke. You will have to work very hard not to end up in a Karaoke parlor if you spend any time at all in Japan, and it‟s effort wasted! You‟ll love it… even if you don‟t.
A crowd of Internationals at a Karaoke parlor
Ah, and in closing, if you do decide to join a student club (which you should) you will undoubtedly find yourself in the above mentioned establishments, making merry with now socially lubricated Japanese friends! Izakaya and karaoke parlors are by far the best places to cut loose and really get to know each other. Have fun! And TALK, for god‟s sake! Around Town Aside from the nightlife, Hirosaki has a variety of other things to do. There are many, many restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops. There‟s Mr. Donuts. There are a couple of arcade gaming centers that are pretty fun and especially popular with the high school crowd. There are four major shopping centers within reasonable distance from the University, as well as one theater that plays both Japanese and American movies, and maybe some Chinese and Korean ones, too. There‟s a batting cage. There‟s a gym. There are tons of small clothing stores to explore, and approximately three million places to get your hair cut, styled, dyed, glued, permed, and attentively massaged. You won‟t believe it. I‟m barely exaggerating. There are a couple 24 restaurants that are cozy and have tasty food (and bottomless drink bars, non-alcoholic of course). There is the beautiful and famed Hirosaki Castle Kooen (park), which is kept in great condition all year round. And if that‟s not enough for you, well… there‟s a JR (Japan Rail) train station! You can go somewhere else whenever you please! Transportation to and from Hirosaki is quite simple. For the budget traveler (which, by default, you are), there are two major bus services that go directly to Sendai, a major city on the Eastern coast, as well as Tokyo. The most popular and convenient bus is the overnight bus. A roundtrip
ticket from Hirosaki to Tokyo will cost you around 10,000 yen, leaves the Hirosaki bus terminal at 9:40 at night, and arrives at Ueno Station, Shinjuku Station, or Tokyo Station around 6:00 the following morning. If you prefer the train, you can go virtually anywhere. Local express trains from Hirosaki will take you to the nearest Shinkansen (Bullet Train) terminal in about two hours, and from there it‟s another three or four hours to Tokyo.
With a train ticket, you can visit The Buddha, your friend and mine
Trains are more expensive, but far more versatile. Furthermore, if you‟re planning a large-scale vacation spanning a great portion of Japan, you should most definitely look into the various JR passes available to students and “normal” people alike. If you plan well, you can save yourself a lot of money. If you‟re hoping to get a student discount, go talk to the Travel Agency (there is one on campus) well in advance. Some additional documentation is required. Explore Japan! Hirosaki is nice, but hardly the embodiment of the Japan you have built up so fantastically in your imagination. To see that Japan, you must buy tickets. If you don‟t, you‟ll kick yourself for years to come. Ouch (depending on your leg strength…)
You can also visit this five-story pagoda in Nara
Living Expenses I‟ve saved this jewel of a topic for last so as to force you to read this behemoth of a report! Otsukare sama deshita! Now, it‟s important to realize up front that, just like practically everything else in life, this will depend almost entirely upon you and your own spending habits. However, I‟ll try to give some basic financial guidelines that you can work with for preparatory purposes. For those of you that have scholarships, you will be unable to live in the International Dormitory. Instead, you will very likely end up in Shimoda Haitsu, an apartment complex who‟s owner very graciously rents out to foreigners, despite their horrid track record for taking terrible care of their apartments and sorting their trash incorrectly, week in and week out (yes, you have to sort your trash…you‟ll learn about it when you get here. Please do it well. Your actions reflect on us all.) The rent at said apartment complex is between 26,000 and 32,000 yen, depending on how new your apartment is, and whether you want it furnished or not. I recommend „not‟, because cheap and quality essentials can be purchased from a variety of Recycle Shops at far less than a year‟s worth of additional rent…but the choice is yours. Sometimes convenience is worth a little extra money. On top of the rent fee, you will have to pay water, electric, and gas utility bills. These usually cost me around 6,000 yen
a month, total. Other people pay twice this… few people pay less. I‟m pretty Spartan in this regard.
My apartment. 23,000 yen/month plus utilities
If you do not have a scholarship, you will probably be living in the International Dormitory, which I mentioned previously. It‟s very cheap… something along the lines of 5,000 yen a month, plus utility bills. If you cook your rice out in the hallway, you won‟t have to pay electricity for running your rice cooker! A small token of advice. The other living costs category is, of course, Food and Frolic! Despite Japan‟s terrifying reputation for being outrageously expensive, it‟s been my experience that this reputation is generally limited to big-city rental fees and transportation. Food is just about the same as what you‟d expect to pay in the States, with produce being a somewhat expensive exception. If I cook for myself, I can eat pretty well on around 20,000 yen a month. There is no tipping in Japan, so you‟ll probably find that going out is actually cheaper than it is in the States! Furthermore, if you‟re the binge-consumer type, many restaurants have “tabehoudai and nomihoudai” available, which are all you can eat, all you can drink (alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks), respectively. A typical nomihoudai is two or three thousand yen. A typical tabehoudai is 2000 yen. But shop around, and you‟ll find a lot of variance. There‟s really not much else to say in this department. The more you eat out/go out, the more money you‟ll spend. A simple and obvious equation. Have as much fun as you can afford, and don‟t waste your money on junk you don‟t need! Beware the 100-en shops… Am I sounding too preachy? My apologies.
Examples of food you might want to eat! Hehe…
Cell Phone In addition to rent, utilities and food, you will probably want to pick up a cell phone. They‟re pretty important for making friends, especially with other Japanese students. Virtually every Japanese student has a cell phone. Your two best choices (and by that I mean cheapest) are AU and Softbank. Softbank is the cheapest if you almost never use your phone. AU is the cheapest if you plan to make some calls from time to time. I have an AU phone, so I‟ll tell you a bit about it. AU provides student discounts for those students willing to sign a one-year contract. The discount is %50 off the normal fee. Good deal! The phone is included as well. They have phones programmed in English, so no need to worry about the language barrier. My minimal monthly fee is around 3400 yen a month. This allows me 100 minutes of outgoing calls (incoming calls, even international ones, are always free on Japanese phones), and almost limitless text messages. Additional minutes after the initial 100 are 30 yen each. Most cell phone communication in Japan takes place via texting, because it is virtually free. There are other, fancier, better, and more expensive cell phone providers, with cooler and more versatile phones (built-in mp3 players, TV screens etc), but you‟ll have to research them on your own when you get here. Japanese cell phones are awesome. I live in awe.
My cellphone (and Renji)
Conclusion Before wrapping things up, I‟d just like to give you a few parting pieces of advice, and offer some of my impressions of this country that I‟ve been living in for the past nine months now. The biggest thing that I‟d like to stress is your mental approach to living here. Be warned, you are a foreigner. You will stand out in almost every environment, no matter how many times you‟ve been there, or how many friends you‟ve made. Foreigners draw attention, whether they want it or not. To elementary, middle, and high school students, you may find that you are the epitome of cool, and as a result, be the victim of nervous giggles and awkward questions from the bold. You may notice that if at any given moment you raise your eyes and scan the room (especially a large room, like the cafeteria), you will accidentally make eye contact with ten pairs of „oops, I got caught staring‟ eyes. If you join a club, you may feel that people are reluctant to talk to you, or that they treat you differently and more reserved than the other members of the club. Any and all of these experiences are likely to be yours if you choose to live in Japan. Okay, so, that being said, let me warn you against the reaction you should not take (please). Don‟t get defensive! While frustration is only natural, try not to get angry or aggressive, and above all else, don‟t decide that it‟s up to them to make you feel welcome
everywhere you go. That‟s just not realistic, and it‟s certainly not productive. Try to understand that most Japanese people have had extremely limited exposure to foreigners of any kind throughout their lives. As a result, they are very often intimidated by you! It‟s up to you to show them that they don‟t need to be. Force yourself to be outgoing, to smile, to be accessible and open, and you will find that the seemingly cold exteriors of your Japanese peers will almost always melt away. If they don‟t respond, well, you can‟t be friends with everybody! Some people are just too uptight and reserved to be open with anyone, let alone a foreigner. Don‟t assume that just because you come across some antisocial behavior means that it‟s only directed at you and your Gaijin-ness. Avoid defensiveness, be forgiving, accept social embarrassment with a smile, and your entire stay in Japan will be much smoother for it.
The Japanese youth… in drag
Well then, I hope that this report has been of some use to you! It‟s been a pleasure to write, and an honor to share my experiences in, and impressions of, Japan. I strongly encourage you to take the plunge and spend a semester or two living here. It will change your life if you let it… and maybe even if you don‟t. It‟s a big world, and Japan is an ideal place to learn that first hand. Best of luck in your future endeavors, and I hope to see you on this side of the world someday! Arigatou Gozaimashita! Sayounara.